For a blogger, the most difficult episodes are the ones that, after you’ve watched, you’re not quite sure how you feel. Nothing is easier (for me) than to spill out words about a strong opinion, whether for good or bad. It’s the ones in the middle that are most vexing.
This, then, is my disclaimer that my thoughts on new Doctor Who episodes are truly reviews rather than considered critical opinions. I refrain from reading others’ thoughts on these new episodes until I finish writing because I am often influenced by what I read. Sometimes this is great: An episode which I found lacking on my first viewing can often be redeemed by reading the insights of another blogger. In fact, that’s probably my favorite aspect of reading blogs – when I am shown a perspective I hadn’t considered and a piece of art is ennobled in my eyes. To give Doctor Who examples, I don’t think I’d have ever “got” “Love & Monsters” on my own steam, but reading blogs like this or this totally convinced me of its genius. Unfortunately, because of my stupid “no influence” policy, I won’t know whether “Into the Dalek” will fall into this camp until I’ve finished getting down my own thoughts.
[There is, of course, the unfortunate flip-side of this coin: Sometimes an episode which worked or even meant a lot to me can be torn down by others. Both Davies and Moffat eras have savage critics, while I find both largely brilliant, so this isn’t uncommon. While I would not call “Fear Her” or “The Beast Below” my favorite episodes, I remain confused by the hate they often receive. This can sharpen your critical faculties by forcing you to reckon with your own biases or previously unconsidered flaws in the episode. Most of the time, though, they just put a damper on things. Luckily, it’s rare that such a reading ruins an episode for me outright, if ever].
While I think there are quite a few interesting aspects of “Into the Dalek” to discuss, I have to admit that as an episode it left me cold. I can’t say I actively disliked it, but neither did I get really drawn in or fired up. Frankly, this makes it a bit difficult to write about because there’s little to latch onto. In context of this, the unusual co-credit between Mofft and Phil Ford is interesting. Rewrites in the new series are an odd phenomenon. Davies often did uncredited rewrites on episodes which, almost certainly without exception, strengthened the story and led to the thematic and tonal consistency of the Davies era (examples include “The Satan Pit” and “The Fires of Pompeii”). Moffat has (apparently) refrained from this, resulting in the occasional episode that feels lightweight, out of place, or even disposable (“The Curse of the Black Spot” leaps to mind). However, in the season four specials Davies took another approach: He had Gareth Roberts and Phil Ford write first drafts of episodes he’d planned to write himself, mostly to relieve him of the incredible burden of doing everything himself. He then took over with the subsequent drafts. This approach had mixed results: “Planet of the Dead” never quite took off, while “The Waters of Mars” soared.
Moffat, interestingly, seems to be working his way towards the same conclusion as Davies. Like Davies, he almost certainly did uncredited rewrites on Stephen Thompson’s early episodes of Sherlock, while in the latest season he shared the credit for the brilliant “The Sign of Three.” Now for the first time, in series 8, he shares co-credit for three episodes: “Into the Dalek” with Phil Ford (Ford’s first episode since “The Waters of Mars”), “Time Heist” with Stephen Thompson, and “The Caretaker” with Gareth Roberts. Interestingly, all three have had credited rewrites by Davies and Moffat before, as noted above. This may suggest that these three episodes had weaker initial drafts, although it’s possible, as with Davies’ specials, that the writers were hired specifically do lay the foundation for Moffat to take over later. The fact that Moffat is credited second, however, suggests the former. These were probably scripts that he stepped in to save. I can’t help but wonder if this accounts of the lackluster feel (for me) of “Into the Dalek.”
But enough speculation about the writing process. Let’s dive into the episode and see if we can make sense of what it was going for. The most striking aspect of the episode was the repeated imagery and symbolism of eyes. We get a close-up of Mr. Pink’s eye as he sheds a tear. Clara’s shirt is covered in [what The Radio Times call Illuminati] eyes. The miniaturized team enter the Dalek through its eye-stalk. The interior roundels (similar to the TARDIS’ “round things”) resemble eyes, as do the floating antibodies. The Doctor speaks of meeting the Dalek “eye to eye” while he (in tiny form) stands eye level with its enormous round eye. The eyes, of course, are the proverbial windows to the soul, and appropriately the episode focuses on the souls of the Doctor and the Dalek: The Doctor in seeking to redeem the Dalek’s soul, and the Dalek being shaped in turn by the “beauty, divinity, and hatred” in the Doctor’s soul.
Comparing the Doctor to the Daleks is nothing new. In this episode, the Doctor talks as though meeting the Daleks completed him, in a sense, showing him who he truly was giving him a purpose. In a sense there is no Doctor and no Doctor Who without Daleks. It is true that the Doctor’s visceral hatred for these arch-enemies is the exception which proves the general rule of his mercy and non-violence, the hatred which tempers his beauty and divinity. In the face of their unwavering evil and bigotry, the Doctor’s only option can be to respond in kind. They are the only race he willingly (and repeatedly) commits genocide to stop. In the Ninth Doctor episode, “Dalek” (to which this episode almost serves as a sequel) the Dalek tells the Doctor that he “would make a good Dalek.” Here, in a chilling echo and reversal, Rusty the Dalek confirms that the Doctor, indeed, is “a good Dalek.” Good, presumably, both in his superior morality and in his ruthless efficiency.
The Doctor’s optimistic attempt to save the Rusty by opening its mind and showing it a “better way of living [its] life” is fatally flawed because he, himself, is fatally flawed. His one saving grace, as Clara points out at the end, is that at least he “tries to be [a good man]” which is “probably the point.” He can show Rusty the truth of his own race’s evil, but he cannot look past his own hatred enough to convince Rusty to change his ways. As Clara says, a good Dalek may be theoretically possible (“nothing is evil in the beginning“) but the Doctor is not equipped change it. In “Dalek” it is Rose’s touch which alters the Dalek’s DNA and changes its nature. What Rusty needs is not a Doctor, but a teacher (Doctor: “I think you’re probably an amazing teacher, Clara Oswald”). One wonders what would have happened if the Doctor had ascended to take care of the technical business of switching Rusty’s memories back on and Clara had taken the plunge to confront the beast eye to eye.
Tied into this is the theme of the tormented soldier. The Doctor has been characterized as a tormented old soldier ever since the new series started and the Time War was introduced. Eccleston’s suffered post-traumatic angst; Tennant’s oscillated between crushing guilt (“the man who regrets”) and fearful hubris; Smith’s went from being “the man who forgets” to fully accepting and redeeming his past. It’s not quite clear where Capaldi fits into scheme just yet. His cold rejection of Journey Blue at the end suggests still unresolved guilt and angst, or perhaps fear of what influence a martial companion would have on him. In yet another parallel to “Dalek” (and its subsequent episode, “The Long Game”) we’re presented with ideal companions (Rose and Clara) with rejected companions (Adam who seems capable but makes all the wrong choices; Journey who is brave and kind but whose capability for violence puts the Doctor off).
What, then, are we to make of Mr. Danny Pink – a hybrid soldier/teacher? Clara certainly likes him, and she has no “rule against soldiers” (obviously not – she hangs out with the Doctor, doesn’t she?). He isn’t shamed by his military past (he runs the Coal Hill Cadets and sticks up for the morality of soldiers) but also is clearly ambivalent about it (the mere mention of killing brings tears to his eyes, and Clara’s stab about “you shoot people and cry about it afterwards” hits a nerve). In fact, it’s quite a Doctor-like ambivalence. I’m sure they’re being set up for comparison, perhaps by Clara, but also perhaps an awkward confrontation with the Doctor once he realizes that Clara is dating a soldier. Clara explicitly compares him to Journey (i.e. the rejected soldier-companion) via their colorful last names. Might this be the source of the tension between Clara’s double lives that Moffat has teased? Are we heading towards Clara’s Choice?
While this is all quite rich symbolism, I still felt underwhelmed by “Into the Dalek.” The pacing felt sleepy, as if the story never really got going. It never got dark enough to be really challenging, but wasn’t ever light enough to be fun and exciting. There were a few good jokes (“She’s my carer. She cares so I don’t have to”; “Don’t be lasagna”) but other than the great moment of the miniaturized team being picked up with a pair of tweezers it lacked that crazy spark which makes Doctor Who so unique. The titular “inside” of the Dalek was pretty expected. Not that different from the Tesselector, in fact, complete with a floating, round auto-immune system (“you will experience a tingling sensation and then death”). The scenes of generic Dalek slaughter were pretty old hat, and I’m not even sure that Rusty gave us a new perspective on Dalek morality that we didn’t already get from “Dalek” or Dalek Caan. The biggest missing piece, to me, was that there was no attention to what I assumed was the most obvious plot point: The fact that Clara, in one of her echo-forms, has been inside a Dalek before! If anyone was a good Dalek, it was certainly Oswin Oswald who defied her nature and helped the Doctor escape the Dalek Asylum. Again, I can’t help but wish that she and the Doctor had switched places in this story.
That’s all I’ve got for the moment. I’m eager to finish this up so that I can go read some reviews (which I gather are largely positive) to show me what I’ve missed. Nothing makes me happier than redeeming a ho-hum episode of a show I love.
A few tangential points:
– It’s worth acknowledging here something which absolutely everyone else has already pointed out: With Capaldi, effectively the first in a new set of regenerations, played by an older actor, we’re getting two teachers from Coal Hill School, as well as glimpses in the two opening episodes of a not-quite unearthly (but certainly bratty) child. Sound familiar?
– Not sure if it’s worth speculating on Missy and her creepy as hell Heaven. As pointed out on twitter, it’s clearly the same location as in “The Girl Who Waited.” The blatant failure to even try to hide this fact makes me wonder if there’s thematic resonance, too. Is this a resting place of people who the Doctor has failed the same way he failed Amy? Are they waiting for him? As for Missy, everyone else has named the likely candidates: The Master, the Rani, River, the TARDIS. She could be someone else entirely. Her Edwardian evil Mary Poppins vibe serves as an interesting connection to Victorian governess Clara.
– Interesting that the crack in the Dalek’s shell which was infecting him with radiation leakage looked quite like the crack in the wall, only turned on its side so it’s vertical. I doubt it’s meant to be the actual crack (clearly Moffat is moving on to new plot points) but the visual similarity is striking and, again, may be linked thematically. Let’s keep an eye out for that shape…